Stumbling into Truth
I've been laboring mightily to complete a novel I've been working on for what seems like centuries but in reality has been about six months. One thing I love about writing romantic suspense is the challenge of interweaving elements from three genres in a balanced way: the suspense (easy for me; I'm an author born for cliffhangers), the romance (tougher with all the murderous mayhem, but do-able), and the mystery (the writing of which often feels like pulling my brain through nostrils with a crochet needle, something akin to the process the Egyptians used to prepare a dead poo-bah's noggin for mummification). With all this going on and a deadline to boot, it's no wonder that subtle element of theme escapes consideration.
For those of you who slept through or have slept since literature classes, it's pretty much the general idea or "lesson" of the story. For example, for Orwell's Animal Farm, you might say "Absolute power corrupts." For Dickens' Great Expectations, "Class is defined by character more surely than money and education" might fill the bill.
Back in English 201, I got the idea that Great Writers (dead white guys, usually) came up with all these themes, motifs, and symbols and brilliantly tucked these gems into their Deathless Prose as they salted the mine for future lit students to unearth.
Here in Reality 101, I'm finding it works differently. You develop characters and write the story, slaving over the what and why and whom until, if you're very, very lucky you earn the grace of a discovery. And the manuscript suddenly leans forward --on page 428 of a supposedly 400-page project, in my case -- and whispers into your ear, "This is what I am about. This is what all these months or years and countless pages boil down to."
And then you go back and you sculpt, chipping away at what doesn't fulfill the story's mission and leaving, if you're very lucky, the clean lines of a story emerge to arrow toward a truth.
Or at least this is how the process works for me. Maybe it's because I'm not a centuries dead, male writer of "Great Literature." But somehow, I think that many of them stumbled, struggled, and crochet-hooked their brains out through their nostrils also. Which is a great reminder that writing, like sausage-making, as I heard suspense author extraordinaire Harlan Coben mention in a Q&A this weekend, doesn't have to be a pretty process.
It's the end result that matters.